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 New Pluralist Paradigms

Islamic Education in Britain Book Cover Islamic Education in Britain
Alison Scott-Baumann, Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor,
Social Science
Bloomsbury Academic
August 27, 2015
240

The panel discussion ‘The future of Islamic studies’  at the  2nd annual British Association for Islamic Studies conference (BRAIS 2015) raised several strategic questions: for example, Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui asked whether the training of Imams could be undertaken at universities, while Professor Sophie Gilliat-Ray dwelt on the challenge of  confessional teachers ‘moving seamlessly’ into the world of academia.  There is a gap waiting to be bridged between the darul ulooms imparting the traditional Islamic sciences to imams, and Islamic Studies departments staffed by sociologists of religion often unsympathetic to confessional world views.

The authors note that their book

is written for a diverse audience in a pluralist world, including for Muslim communities that have contributed to this research and that may be able to use our research findings in their everyday practice of Islamic education. This book is written  for everyday pluralist British society – communities, practitioners and policy-makers – to enable better understanding of one of the many facets – the Muslim facet – of  British society, and also more significantly how this facet interacts with the rest of British society. Finally, this book is written for the academic community working in the areas of Islamic Studies, Religious Studies, Religious Diversity, Pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue, and will advance new, more inclusive and democratic ways of conceptualising, undertaking and disseminating research with, by and for those who are researchers, - within, in our case, British Muslim communities.

The work provides difficult-to-find empirical data in three areas: on 'faith leadership', within the Sunni and Shia traditions; issues facing Muslim colleges and their approaches;  women's experiences and expectations in Islamic education. It   draws on visits to over 30 Islamic seminaries and there is a useful chart mapping the provision for Islamic Studies in the UK, ranging from madrassas to universities to providers of practical courses. The latter include the Certificate in Muslim Chaplaincy from the Markfield Institute of Higher Education (MIHE) and the religious continuing professional development (CPD) offering of Faith Associates. It also provides four examples of  'hybrid courses'  that 'can be horizon broadening and can also engage with the believer's voice at the same time':  Cambridge Muslim College, commended for aspiring for intellectual rigour; Al-Mahdi Institute, for offering modern theories in the studies of religion (Birmingham) ; MA Islamic Studies and doctoral course at Islamic College (London); Al-Maktoum College of Higher Education (Dundee), for a 'secular curriculum with multicultural focus'.

The authors use tactful language in their assessment of madrassas and darul ulooms:  'We found high educational standards in GCSE and A level, as well as outmoded pedagogies for Classical Islamic Theology'. A significant lack-of-fit  relates to Islamic education and women - one of the longest chapter is entitled 'Muslim Women's voices, Feminisms and Theologies'. This is rich in both its historical sweep and in gauging the pulse of young British Muslim women today.

The chapter gives voice to their frustrations with 'normative narratives of Islamic knowledge over-represented  male and patriarchal voices, [in which] Muslim women's scholarly contributions gradually become invisible'. The pedagogical challenges are daunting,

There is an urgent need to reclaim Islamic historical narratives, rewriting them to fill in all the blank spots left by missing women. Aisha Bewley alludes to a need to achieve this by challenging patriarchal narratives: "it is time to re-examine the sources and re-assess how Muslim women in the past acted so that we can escape the limiting perspectives which have come to be the norm. This new approach needs to be researched, written and then taught by and to women and also taught to young men. Both young women and young men, future leaders and citizens, need to be aware of the continuing contributions of female scholarship to the compendium of Islamic knowledge. Awareness is perhaps the first step  to a society that is equitable and respectful to both genders.

Tim Winter, a rare individual with cubicles both in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and the Cambridge Muslim College, notes in the book’s foreword, ‘it is not only the universities which are likely to benefit from a broader and less monocultural paradigm of scholarship. The seminaries too, increasingly recognise that their syllabus is an imperfect fit with the realities of modern British society’. The authors do not underestimate the tasks ahead in realising this vision, because

debate often polarizes the secular and the Islamic as mutually exclusive to each other as in Huntington's theory of the clash of civilisations. However we can provide evidence for strong synergies between the two and possibilities for collaboration . . .

. . . in a secular society like that of Britain, we see the tendency for the mainstream educational establishment to assess the authenticity of courses by their secular content and accreditation by national examination or assessment bodies. By contrast, the leaders of religious communities may assess the authenticity of courses by the status of faith-based elements; this can include study abroad, where teachers provide traditional courses and are Arabic speakers. The perceived authenticity of courses is measured differently depending on the criteria being used: are we interested in a faith leader who has the accreditation or the authenticity or who is devout or who is attuned to plural British life, and are theses – accreditation, authenticity, devoutness and plurality – compatible? Clearly, the issue of accreditation is at the heart of any  full societal acknowledgement of learning and the wish for jobs and salaries, whereas authenticity and devoutness are key to religious life and practice within British Muslim communities. We believe that work is still to be done around issues of scholarly and spiritual authenticity and about how a secular university and a faith institution can agree about these issues.

The authors correctly assess the political dimension of their work,

Terrorist events and subsequent debates about radicalisation and the prevention of violent extremism further complicate discussions and  perceptions of Islamic education.

They challenge the views of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security - later echoed by Home Secretary Theresa May - that blames universities for being soft on extremism,

It is difficult to counter the vehemence with which these perceived links are drawn between university campuses and terrorism. Yet there is no causal evidence. Nothing suggests that attending university radicalizes Muslims (and here we have the pathologizing of Islam, as the accusation is only made against Muslims, never against fascists or racists or other religions).

This is a book not just for educationalists, but anyone interested in obtaining a well-informed, nuanced view of an important aspect of British Muslim institutional life and the factors that motivate young Muslims to enroll in Islamic Studies courses.

There are also historical precedents for the vision of academic partnerships of the 'secular/critical' and 'pious/confessional' - notably the mutual respect and cooperation between the educational pioneer and founder of the Muslim Angl0-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) in British India, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and leading luminaries of the Deoband Seminary such as Maulana Qasim Nanotvi - perhaps a field of study for an educational historian?

M.A.Sherif

April 2016

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